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Illinois teachers would be able to use sick days for mental health. Will it help?

An elementary teacher walks with a student to another classroom outside.

The pandemic has impacted educators, so Illinois is considering legislation that will allow teachers to use sick days to address mental health.

Karen Pulfer Focht for Chalkbeat

This series seeks to amplify efforts to better support the wellness of students and school staff during this challenging comeback year.

Teachers like English teacher Briana Morales worked overtime to support their students through two years of disruptions and emotional upheaval during the pandemic. Now, Morales wonders who will help those exhausted teachers.

The fifth-year teacher at an alternative high school in East St. Louis District 189 in southern Illinois has provided academic and mental health support for students reeling from coronavirus issues, as well as gun violence and poverty that predate the pandemic. In summer 2020, she attended funerals for three of her students who were killed in shootings.

“In the fall of 2020, I had to just bounce back because my students still needed me at that time. But I had no time to process what I needed for myself,” Morales said. “On top of that no one even asked me, ‘What do you need?”

A bill, SB 3914, in the Illinois general assembly proposes one step to address the needs of educators like Morales — by allowing teachers to use sick days for mental health reasons. It comes in response to the increased demands on teachers over the last two years: shifting instruction from remote to hybrid classrooms to in-person learning while balancing the needs of students who have lost learning and need mental health support. 

SB 3914 passed the Senate unanimously and is scheduled for a House committee hearing Wednesday. The bill has changed a few times throughout the legislative process; the first version of the bill would have given teachers five mental health days at full pay but now it has expanded how teachers can use sick days to include mental health concerns. 

To Morales and other educators, the bill is a step in the right direction — but not enough. 

Teachers burn out from the pandemic

 Under the Illinois school code, teachers receive a minimum of 10 sick days per year. That puts the state in line with the average across the country, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit policy organization. The vast majority of districts allow teachers to carry over unused sick leave from year to year without a limit. 

Chicago Public Schools teachers receive at least 10 sick days per year and as many as 13 based on experience level, plus three personal days. Chicago gives five days for bereavement leave and allows up to five days of sick leave to be used for bereavement.

 The pandemic has made the need for additional mental health support even more important. According to “Job-Related Stress Threatens the Teacher Supply,” a report by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research institute, one in four teachers said that they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020–2021 school year. According to the report, 78% percent of teachers reported job-related stress compared to 40% of the general population. While teachers across the nation have voiced frustration with their jobs during the pandemic, a Chalkbeat analysis of data from the states and large school districts found that a mass teacher exodus has not happened yet. 

The state’s largest teachers union, the Illinois Education Association, supports the bill.

“If our teachers are overworked or overwhelmed and need to take a break from the classroom for a day, they should absolutely be able to do so without fear of being punished for taking care of themselves,” Kathi Griffin, president of IEA, said in a statement to Chalkbeat.  

Allowing teachers to take time off for mental health reasons would help districts retain educators and recruit new teachers, Griffin said. 

The public supports giving teachers mental health days, according to an IEA survey of 1,000 Illinois residents. Of those polled, 72% supported allowing educators to take mental health days.

Not everyone agrees. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said she’s concerned about giving more days to educators because students have to recover learning after the pandemic. 

“I don’t see how having [teachers] out of school more often is going to help anyone. It may be a temporary fix, but we’ve got to put kids first here,” Walsh said. “We can’t have kids showing up to school and getting escorted into a gym to spend the day because there’s nobody to teach them.”

Are mental health days enough?

Lisa Thyer, a teacher of 16 years, has found the current school year to be the most challenging. While school district leaders have promised that this year would be a return to normalcy, it’s been far from normal, according to Thyer. 

She teaches English to high school students at Consolidated School District 230 in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Thyer has struggled to figure out the academic and emotional needs of her students this school year and feels unsure about her ability to teach. 

“No one knew how to do hybrid instruction and we were all doing the best we could, but I was supposed to know how to do classroom instruction,” Thyer said. “I don’t feel like I’m doing a good job anymore.”

 Morales, the East St. Louis teacher, and Thyer think that the proposed mental health days would be useful, but they feel that educators will need more to stay in the profession and get past burnout.

 Morales wants to see districts provide more mental health support for educators. Her district has contracts with therapists to support students and families. She would like to see that extended to educators. 

Morales said that teachers have multiple obstacles blocking them from seeing therapists on their own like the cost of going to therapy and time to schedule an appointment.  

“Is there a way that we can balance a school day so that both students’ families and educators are all getting the same levels of support that they need to sustain themselves during this time and going forward?” Morales asked.  

Thyer is cautiously optimistic about the proposed mental health days for educators. She wants it to be the first step in the conversation on how to support teachers but worries that some will not even take sick days due to the state’s substitute shortage.  

“If there’s no one who can cover your classes, taking a day off is gonna fall on your colleagues to miss their plan period or things like that to help cover your classes,” Thyer said. “It’s nice to have them but for them to actually be useful is a different thing, especially in this pandemic.”

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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